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The Many Passions of the Christ

Our man with the popcorn and the Aramaic phrasebook Thomas Wartenberg explains why so many people have a problem with Mel Gibson’s flay ‘n’ slay epic, and why so many others think it really is the greatest story ever told.

Ashort while ago, I chaired a panel discussion of Mel Gibson’s recently released film, The Passion of the Christ. The controversy over this film long predated its release. Accounts differ as to the precise nature of the events that led to the film being criticized for anti- Semitism well before its release, but it is clear that the trading of charges and counter-charges has helped turn the film into something more: a marker in the continuing United States culture wars and, perhaps, even a major event in world-historical terms.

The debate that I chaired took place at Mount Holyoke College, where I teach, and the panel was composed of a New Testament historian, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, the College’s Protestant minister and Catholic chaplain, and a film historian. I was asked to serve as moderator because the organizer had consulted me about whom to have on the panel, because of my being Jewish and because I play a central role in the College’s Film Studies Program.

The discussion went much as anyone who has seen the film might expect. First, the historian criticized the film because of its historical inaccuracies. He argued that it was very important to do this because the film has presented itself as, and will be taken by many viewers as, the truth about Jesus’ life. But, he argued, the Gospels themselves reflect the specific concern to make Christianity appealing to the large numbers of Romans who were joining the faith in the century after Jesus’ death. Given the fact that the founder of this growing religion was Jewish and was killed by the Romans, the result was a whitewashing of Pilate’s role in the Crucifixion by all of the Gospels. That Gibson went even farther in his contrast between a tormented Pilate and the vengeful Jewish leaders was, said the historian, truly appalling, especially when viewed in light of the current climate of religious strife on a global scale.

Next came the Jewish scholar. He said that he wanted to explain the anxieties and concerns that the film had raised for Jews before its release and that had even grown since its release. Although Gibson had been quoted as saying that he wanted to show that all of us are sinners and hence guilty of Jesus’ death, he said, that was not the message he got from the film. It was clear that it was a group of Jewish rabbis and members of the Jewish community who demanded Jesus’ death by crucifixion from a Roman proconsul who was portrayed as deeply troubled by the demand and who only very reluctantly bowed to the Jews’ pressure. Also stressing the importance of the world climate in which anti-Semitism is on the rise in many quarters, the scholar argued that this film was likely to fan those fires just at a time when we should be doing our best to increase those Jewish-Christian dialogues that have been working against the spread of anti-Semitism.

The Protestant minister agreed that the film was anti-Semitic, but said that was not her central worry, which was that the film distorted the message of the man who had profoundly affected her and her life. She told the audience that Jesus’ message was that we had to embrace those on the margins, whom no one cared about or wanted to love. This message was the real gift of Jesus to the world, she said, and it was completely missing from Gibson’s film that focused exclusively on his torment. While the Crucifixion was important, it had to be understood in the context of Jesus’ teachings, virtually none of which were given any prominence in the film.

The Catholic college chaplain emphasized the Church’s complicity in the murder and torture of Jews over the centuries through its propagation of the questionable idea of collective guilt, an idea that the Church had been combating since at least 1962. In her eyes, the film did a disservice to the Catholic Church and the growing dialogue between Jews and the Church. She pointed out that U.S. Catholic bishops had issued a statement emphasizing the importance of maintaining the dialogue between Catholics and Jews, rather than taking a giant step backwards.

The last speaker on the panel was our film scholar who approached the film very differently. She saw the film in the light of previous attempts to bring Jesus to the screen, a repeated theme throughout the history of film. Her claim was that Jesus’ body had always been portrayed incongruously because it inevitably reflected contemporary bodily styles at the same time that it was supposed to be historical. From her point of view, Gibson had succeeded in doing what he set out to do: Tell Jesus’ story on the screen in a way that was not inherently a parody. He did this by making Jesus’ body virtually unrecognizable as a contemporary body by having it beaten so thoroughly from virtually the beginning of the film.

After I made a few comments, the discussion was turned over to the audience, composed mostly of students. What was remarkable to me was the number of students who openly said that this film had tremendous religious significance for them, that they had watched it at least three times with different groups of friends, that they didn’t see it as anti- Semitic because it wasn’t a movie about Jews at all but about Jesus and his suffering, and that the film made them realize that they were responsible for Jesus’ death, as was each of us.

I left that discussion – as I had the film the night before – puzzled that this film could produce such different responses. It seemed as if the people I had been listening to had watched very different films. Some saw it as historically inaccurate and a real threat to Jewish-Christian relations; others saw it as an abasement of the true message of Jesus’ life and death; still others saw it as a remarkable document of faith that captured the essence of their religious belief; while others saw an attempt to wrestle with serious aesthetic problems. And, of course, there may be many more films that other viewers have seen as well.

I want to focus on just two of those films: First, the film that people like myself and most of the other panelists had seen – a deeply anti-Semitic film that portrayed sadism to an almost unbearable extent, a film that was hard to reconcile with the message of Christianity. And, second, the film that many Catholics and some other Christians, among them many students in the audience, saw – a film of unparalleled spiritual significance, a film that taught them the real meaning of their faith in a way nothing previously had done.

I was genuinely puzzled about this discrepancy and have thought about it a great deal, for I am not a postmodernist who might coolly respond that it’s natural for different people with different assumptions and commitments to see the film differently. I have no doubt that that is true to some extent. But what struck me the moment I left the theater on the night before the discussion was my inability to understand how anyone could see this film as spiritually uplifting in any sense. To me, the repeated scenes of Jesus’ suffering – especially during the very long procession to the Mount of Olives – portrayed the brutality and sadism of human beings or, at least, the Roman soldiers. But even though I know that it would make a difference if I thought that the body being abused was God’s body, I was thoroughly perplexed about how seeing people taking pleasure in its destruction could yield a spiritual message. Indeed, for me this overly-long sequence was its own parody, for each new abuse seemed laid on only to prolong the sequence and show that no stone could be left unthrown, no flesh left intact.

Slowly a hypothesis dawned on me about these two responses. The reason there were these two films – the anti- Semitic tract that Jews and others saw, and the deeply spiritual portrayal of the agony of the Christ that moved a certain segment of the Christian audience – is that the film itself is divided. To explain what I mean, I’ll say that The Passion 1 is the film up to the point where Jesus is condemned to crucifixion by Pilate and The Passion 2 is the remainder of the film culminating in a very short sequence depicting the Resurrection. The first audience to the film – let me call them Jews and their allies, without meaning to prejudice the case – focus on what is depicted in The Passion 1 while the second audience to the film – let me call them traditional Catholics and their allies – respond most fully to the second.

Let me explain. Although the narrative of The Passion is an amalgam of the different Gospels and is thus familiar material, The Passion 1 focuses on the quasi-legal processes that led to Jesus being condemned to death. In Gibson’s version, the Jewish community as a whole is responsible for this. It is they who apprehend him in the woods through Judas’ treachery and then, in the film’s version, subject his body to its first round of torture, even though none of the Gospels mention this, as they bring him into a Jewish court. After this, Jesus is brought before Pilate and the head rabbis ask that he be crucified, a request that Pilate finds unreasonable. What the film then depicts is a humane and thoughtful, if troubled and pressured leader – Pilate – who succumbs to the vengeful, sadistic crowd of Jews demanding Jesus’ crucifixion.

At this point, I think all viewers have to have understood the film to be presenting the Jewish community as a whole, though its leaders especially, as those who are responsible for Jesus’ death. Although the Roman soldiers are already depicted as sadistic goons whose delight in Jesus’ torture appalls us, we are meant to be even more repelled by the Jews’ refusal to be satisfied with the destruction of Jesus’ body by the Romans, by what we see as their adamant and irrational demand that he be executed.

This portrayal exonerates Pilate of any responsibility for Jesus’ death. It does so through the cinematic technique it repeatedly uses to show scenes of Jesus’ earlier life, most notably the Last Supper. Pilate begins to wash his hands and we get an action dissolve to Jesus washing his hands before that Passover Seder which has become known as the Last Supper. (For those that do not know, this is one of the traditional acts of the celebration of Passover.) When we return to Pilate, he says that he has washed his hands of Jesus’ blood and the Jews respond that it will now be on them alone. (It is notable that the last phrase from Matthew 27:25 is not translated onto the subtitles because test audiences found it upsetting!)

The Jews’ supposed acceptance of their guilt for Jesus’ death has become known as the blood libel. Its repetition by untold generations of Christians resulted in pogroms, assaults and a deep-grained anti-Semitism. It is no wonder, then, that at this point Jewish audiences have had enough of the film. What they have seen is a depiction of Jesus’ conviction and sentencing that emphasizes the most anti-Semitic aspects of the Christian tradition. For those who have this response, this is what seems essential to the film: its pointed emphasis and expansion of the anti-Semitic aspects of the Gospels’ version of Jesus’ condemnation.

But Gibson is not by any means done with us. We have yet to sit through the most gory and unrelenting moments of the film. The entire journey to the Mount of Olives as well as Jesus’ being nailed to the cross and his suffering on the cross are nothing but extended scenes of a body being brutalized well-beyond any possible point of tolerance. But Jesus, as Gibson presents him, has extraordinary powers of endurance and he – or his body – just takes more and more abuse until he finally dies upon the Cross after more than two hours of film time have elapsed.

Sitting through The Passion 2 is an ordeal, even for a non-believer. But for someone who thinks that she is witnessing, albeit in fictional form, her God being tortured, brutalized, and, finally, killed, I imagine this must be a truly agonizing and yet purifying experience. My hypothesis is that this film – The Passion 2 – so overwhelms The Passion 1 for traditional Catholics that it and it alone constitutes the film for them. What they focus on and think the film is about, is simply the horrendous suffering that Jesus chose to endure in order to save them and everyone else. How could this not be the film they see? The earlier scenes of the various trials and machinations are just so much stage setting for the real issue at hand: Jesus’ sacrifice.

So that’s my hypothesis. It’s not so much an interpretation of the film or an interrogation of its anti-Semitism or anything like that, all of which I think needs to be done. All I have tried to do is to understand how this film can produce such different responses in different viewers, depending on their religious and/or ethnic affiliation. I think it is important that everyone interested in this film should think about this question, so that the film not result in an increasing polarization between people. Too often, when Jews feel they have been victimized, their very response to that victimization alienates others even more, bringing about increased anti-Semitism rather than a greater awareness of its perils. I have tried to show why Jews are upset by the film but also, and equally importantly, why some Christians find it spiritually compelling. Although I cannot share the second response, I can respect it. I ask those who share that second response also to think about why some of this film’s viewers might react as they do and not simply dismiss them or regard them as missing the film’s point. For, as I have argued, there are more Passions of the Christ than one might assume.


Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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